103 – Meltdown!

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Lawrence was sweating. Granted, there were several factors as to why that was the case, but still. Having to host, being presentable, and attempting to make a good impression on a senior who might have had a reason to not like us. I could see how that was cause for stress.

But still…

His skin was clammy, he tumbled over his words on occasion, and how he walked was too deliberate, having to think over every step, every movement. Again, he could just be trying to consider the guests, but still.

But still.

“And you’re proud of this collection you have here?”

Inez had her nose turned up while she asked. Incredulous. She walked in step with Lawrence, but her pace was more measured, almost like she was the one leading the way. Lawrence struggled to keep an even stride with her.

The whole thing was hard to watch. Where I had the sharp teeth and bite, Lawrence was supposed to have a tongue of silver. What did it say, when the face of the gang looked so unwell?

“We might not be at the Mazzucchelli, but we do have several pieces that would be worthy of such a place. Take this piece, here.”

Lawrence raised an arm, pointing to the specific piece he had mentioned. The last one down this hall, in the East wing of the museum. A painting.

Wasn’t any artwork I’d seen before. Must have missed it during my one and only proper visit to the gala.

It was a quaint, reserved work of art. One that wasn’t trying to be flashy with its colors or technique, but rather creating and capturing a mood that one had to sit with and contemplate. It didn’t strike so much as it did stir.

A portrait of a man. Elderly, with a soft expression on his face. A few, small brushstrokes reflected a certain sadness in his eyes, but he didn’t look particularly troubled. It didn’t consume him, it didn’t swallow him. There was a distinct line between his lips, turned up, so slight. There was a gloom that the man had lived through, but he learned to live through it, live with it.

Quick dashes of violet hues shaped the man’s face, shoulders, upper body. His hands were clasped together, in his lap, one resting on top of the other. The coloring was kept simple, monochromatic, focusing more on forming things through lighting and shading. The presentation had a surrealness to it, but the overall sentiment was so very real. Despite the torrent behind the man’s eyes, and maybe behind the painter themselves, there was a calm that permeated the piece. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, myself, aside from a strange mixture of longing. And dread.

If I had come across this while I was going through the gala, I probably would have given it a pass. It was too real, it hit too close. The eyes looked through me, too deeply.

I stayed back as Lawrence waited for Inez and her crew.

“Not would be,” Inez said, “It has been. I’ve seen this piece before. You just stole it from their walls.”

“We all work in the same industry,” Lawrence said, “Is crime not our craft?”

Inez turned to get a better look at the painting. I only had the back of her head to work with, now, but I could read her body language. She wasn’t being very subtle about it.

Her shoulders stiffened, lifting them up. She rolled them back, and as she relaxed again, Inez angled her head. Turning her nose upward, over Lawrence. With heels, she towered over Lawrence, and he was already taller than me.

I could only imagine the look she had in her eyes. I wasn’t envious of Lawrence at all.

“I deal, young man. I make offers and then others take them. Power, wealth. That is how I build these things. Respect. I do not need to resort to simple thievery like the common thug.”

Ugh. She wasn’t even addressing me directly, and she still got me heated. I knew why, though. Because it was my gang she was putting down. My people, and that included people like Sarah.

Lawrence was rankled, too, but I saw him work to keep his composure. Lawrence laughed. It was a nervous one. Not a good look.

Shit. At this venture I’d be doing a better job than him.

No, wait. Fuck that. If I was in Lawrence’s position, this would have turned into a bloody mess, quick. Literally.

And the last thing we needed right now was a mess.

My hand closed into a fist as I watched Lawrence struggle.

“You could say we had set the stage to play the role of the common thug. But even so, would the common thug be able to rob the biggest art museum in the city, on the night it would be the most guarded, occupied by the rich and the elite? Most, if any at all, wouldn’t even make it to the front steps of the place. We managed all of that, and it was but one part of a grander plan.”

Lawrence hoped that would be enough to impress her. Hell, I did, too.

Still facing the direction of the painting, her back to me. Nothing in her posture suggested that at all.

“By grand plan, do you mean running into the smoke of a convenient fire?” Inez questioned.

God, she was as bad as Mrs. Carter, maybe even worse. At least Mrs. Carter was able to congratulate us, give us our props. She even welcomed us. Inez, though? What was her fucking problem?

But, that was why we invited her here, to the museum that Lawrence made his base. It was just that the process was like pulling teeth.

Something I wouldn’t have been opposed to inflicting upon our… esteemed fucking guest.

Lawrence took a noticeable second to provide a response.

“Smoke and mirrors, Lady Inez, deception is one of the most important tools we have at our disposal, and I think we showed a good display of that, on that night. If you believed that fire to be a convenience, then we did our job better than we expected, and we more than earned our seat at the table.”

Inez straightened out her back. As if she wasn’t tall already.

“Not a fire, then, but a hellblaze. And if you’re the one who lit the match and threw it, young man, then it proves just how reckless and hot-headed you really are. By throwing caution to the wind with this stunt to impress the panel, you risk causing a fire you had no control over.”

“Doesn’t everything come with a bit of risk? Given the circumstances, we did well enough to win over the panel, did we not?”

“Hm.”

Inez had folded her arms, squared her shoulders, judging from her outline. Most of her body was covered by a dark brown long coat, with a texture that suggested it could have been skinned from an animal. What kind? I had no guesses, there.

In this exchange of words, it was Inez’s turn, and she was taking her time. She stared ahead at the painting, deep in thought. Seemingly. I did not envy Lawrence in the slightest.

I stayed back, closer to the shadows. Right where I belonged.

Keeping watch until something went wrong. Which it might.

I willed Lawrence to get his head back in the game.

If it wasn’t so clouded with pills.

Then, finally, Inez spoke.

“This painting, it’s a very particular piece. A relatively obscure piece from a relatively obscure artist, only recognized by critics due to his storied past and the people he influenced. Either you only happened to pick this by chance, or you actually have some developed taste.”

Lawrence faced the painting. I saw him fix his posture. Not completely straight, but straighter.

“The latter,” Lawrence said. Breathy, but it was with the most confidence I’d heard from since Inez’s group got here. “LIke I suggested, I do know what I’m doing, and that extends to my gang, too. You’re right, this man’s work isn’t well known or appreciated by the general public, but I did come across some his paintings while digging into other stuff. Movies, and then documentaries. Some of them talked about his art during his time in East Asia. It was only for a brief time, but if you compare-”

“Yes. I am aware. After his visit, his art moved from the idyllic portrayals of landscapes, to almost exclusively self-portraits. His style shifted as well, veering away from his more picturesque attempts at realism to this more abstract, yet stark approach. The art and subject matter had changed so intensely the few peers and friends he had refused to believe it was his work.”

“It wasn’t so much what he decided to paint, it was how. They weren’t prepared to see how the man saw himself, when he returned.”

The two conversed, on a level that seemed more even for Lawrence. He was able to keep up, or she was letting him keep up. But if that was the case, than he had already lost ground, here.

And we would have wasted time inviting someone over, only for them to insult us in our own home.

That was the last fucking thing we needed, right now. We got here, we earned our spot. We were riding that wave up. We didn’t need anyone to come and knock us down.

Lawrence, please.

Inez’s turn. Again.

“It’s been suggested that he’s always had that particular view of himself. From personal journal entries, to accounts by those who could only stand to be with him for more than a few minutes. Manic, self-destructive, obsessed with the idea of creating something that he perceived to be worthwhile and would last. To be one of the greats. That was his fuel, but it burned him on the inside. And flames have a habit of wanting to burst, escape into the open air.”

Turning again to Lawrence, she continued, no longer willing to give him any space to speak. Like I figured, she was playing him. Us.

“Do you know how he died?”

Lawrence was sweating. More from nervousness than anything else in his system. I’d bet.

He was about to answer, but Inez cut him off. Toying with him.

“He died a young man. Got into opioids during his time in the East. Overdose.”

I could see the look on his face. I could bet I had the same look when Natalie gave me Alexis’ name. Like we had seen a ghost.

Fear.

Lawrence was too out of it now to give a proper response. Too shaken.

Inez toyed with that, too.

“This artist thought he could be more than what was around him, and then, more than his own self. That was why he painted what he painted. He wanted a legacy that would last well after he was gone. And in the end, maybe he got that. I do wonder if this was what he had in mind, exactly. As I mentioned, relative obscurity.”

This conversation was going off in a totally different direction, with Inez at the lead. Not at all how I would have liked for this thing to go. But here we were, because of her.

Lawrence, finally, managed to get enough of his bearings back to say something.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak for him, but I suppose it would almost be fitting, that he’d be disappointed.”

Inez paused, brief.

“Yes. That’s one thing we can agree on.”

Lawrence shifted in place. He looked as if he’d need assistance just to keep standing on two feet.

Dammit. He insisted that’d he be fine. And we all let him go out there, like that. Part of that was on us, now. On me, on D.

I was starting to sympathize with Lawrence, though. He had to have felt the exact same way when dealing with me. Dammit.

Lawrence spoke, and it wasn’t with much spirit. If anything, it sounded like he had little left.

“But, yes, as hopefully you now see, I- the Fangs, we know what we’re doing, and we wouldn’t have gotten that seat if we hadn’t-”

A clear sound rang throughout the wing. Inez shifted to face Lawrence straight on. Her heel struck the marble floor, producing a note that resonated through everyone. It made me freeze and want to recoil, and I was already hanging as far back as I could.

Being as close to the epicenter as he was, Lawrence shook, needing a step back, stumbling that made me scared that he’d take a fall. He didn’t. But he could have.

And I was getting scared that I’d have to insert myself into this.

Inez made herself clear.

“Really, young man? You play with fire and steal the painting of a man who did the very same? Did you already forget his ultimate fate, or is this another sad facet of his tragic legacy?”

Lawrence stammered, but nothing came out.

Inez took his turn, and pushed the game further.

“I know why you invited me here, today, and I have no problem telling it to your face, young man. Yes, I did cast a vote against the Fangs.”

By this point, it wasn’t a surprise, anymore.

Taking it in, Lawrence made himself stiff, bracing himself for more. Because more was coming.

“I can’t and won’t tell you how others voted, but I can give you my reasons. Mrs. Carter was right, changes are happening in Stephenville, and a gang like yours represents that very clearly. However, I disagree that these changes needed to be embraced. Much like fire, your gang is unpredictable, wild, liable to destroy everything in your path, turning it all to cinders. Do we really need a group like that, at the table? Do I?”

You’re not that far off, I thought.

Lawrence, though, looked as if he didn’t have a single thought in his head. Struggling wasn’t the right word, because that would have suggested an attempt, an effort. There was no such struggle in Lawrence, no fight. Not anymore.

He had completely given up that this would go well.

I did, too.

Poor Lawrence.

Inez then turned, her sharp eyes piercing through me like daggers. The hair at the back of my neck stood at the ends, and I was aware how I was standing. Leaning towards her, slight, needing just a brush of wind to push me and make me lunge right at her.

I balled up my fist, doing everything I could just to keep standing, keep myself staying here.

We didn’t need that, we didn’t need that mess.

Her stare was like a dagger, because it was short, cold as ice when it passed through me, and left me in a startled yet readied state, ready to retaliate. She pulled back, though, pulled the blade out of me.

“And I’m concerned with the kind of fire you have at your disposal. I’ve read the official reports by the police, but everyone has. Explosives, thermite. But what truly worries me and the others who voted against you is what the police didn’t report, what’s being whispered in hallways and back corners, because we have ears, there. We listen. And we heard something about the Bluemoon, or someone very similar to them.”

Lawrence replied, it surprised me that he did.

“The Bluemoon is gone, probably dead. No one has seen them last year.”

“Last year wasn’t that long ago, young man. Solace did have a part in waning the Bluemoon, but none of us really know what we’re up against, with that. It can always rise again, it might even take on another shape, another phase.”

Inez sounded so pleased with herself, as if she was the only one who had cracked the code. In truth, she wasn’t so far off, but that arrogance rubbed me the wrong way. Raw. Red.

If she found out, if it came out…

Well, it’d be too late for them to do anything, wouldn’t it? We were already where we needed to be. The timeline of things would just be moved up a little.

Still, using Lawrence’s words, deception was one our most important tools.

“If you’re suggesting that the Bluemoon has been back and working with us,” Lawrence said, “Then you would be mistaken.”

Mistaken on a technicality.

Lawrence continued, “Rumors are just that. Unsubstantiated. Shapes lurk in the shadows, and when the human eye can’t make out what’s there, it fills in the blank for you. That’s how you get monsters, the things you can’t really touch, so you fear it. Like changes.”

That prompted the first, genuine reaction from Inez. She unfolded her arms, her hands moving onto her hips instead. The crew she had with her reacted, too, getting more tense, stirring. As though they were an extension of her.

All Lawrence had for an extension right now was me. I hoped that would be enough for him.

Inez kept that pose, a new sort of defense for Lawrence to try and penetrate. But he wouldn’t have the strength to do it. He was too out of it, out of sorts.

He was sweating.

“I fear nothing, young man,” Inez answered, “But as I said, I do know why you invited me, today. You want to win me over, change my mind? If nothing else, this day won’t be a complete waste if I can get some entertainment out of watching you try. Come. Show me if you Fangs really have teeth.”

And then Inez left, or took down towards another corner of the wing. Her crew went with her, leaving Lawrence behind.

With me in the distance, in that brief moment, it was me, Lawrence, and that painting. How it gazed, content with the chaos in his life, but ultimately doomed to it.

Lawrence looked away from the painting, to Inez, and I looked at Lawrence.

I watched him wipe his brow, and follow. For him, this was far from over.

For all of us, really.

I was about to follow, too, take a step, when my phone vibrated.

Giving the message a quick read, I walked, but not in Lawrence’s direction. I went other way, leaving Lawrence to his own devices, at a time when his own devices weren’t working so well for him.

Sorry, Lawrence.

Poor guy.

I maneuvered through empty halls, displays and other paintings were my only company as I turned onto the path back to Lawrence’s office.

Pushing through the weighty doors, I returned.

Sarah, D and Isabella. They were all doing their own thing, but they all shared a collective air of anxiety. One I drew breath from, too.

D was sitting in Lawrence’s desk, her face illuminated by the open laptop in front of her. Her face was screwed up in a tight expression, studying whatever was on her screen, fretting over something. Isabella sat in the corner, in the shadows, not really doing much of anything.

Sarah.

Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.

Just seeing her, it lifted me, made me flutter. Repeating myself was lame, but it was either that, or tumble over my own words. And after watching Lawrence, I’d spare myself the effort.

“Hi,” I said, addressing the room. There wasn’t much else to say.

Sarah was already looking at me. She smiled, but it was dampened somewhat but the surrounding circumstances. Couldn’t blame her.

D was next, popping her head up from her screen.

“You’re back!”

“Only because you asked me, too.” I lifted my phone. I dropped it into my pocket. “Lawrence isn’t doing too hot. And that could be seen as joke, considering how hard he was sweating it out there, but there isn’t really anything funny about it.”

D frowned. She looked legitimately upset, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Knowing her, she would have already had things in motion.

“He won’t listen to a thing I say.”

“He’s not listening to anything anyone says,” I rebutted. “I’ve come to learn he can get pretty fucking stubborn.”

“We all are,” D said. “You, Vivi, and me especially. Maybe even Sarah.”

She pointed at Sarah using her lips.

Sarah shrugged, a slight smirk on her face.

“That could be a fair assessment. Stubbornness has gotten me this far.”

She eyed me as she said that.

Lame.

I smirked back.

“It’s gotten us here, sure, but it’ll only take us so far,” D said. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I-”

D massaged her neck, tugging at her choker.

She then sighed. “We’ll need more than this if we want to keep the momentum going.”

“Like what? Any ideas?”

Shaking her head, D’s hair whipped around her face.

“I dunno. I’m tired.”

If D of all people couldn’t think of anything, then we had a problem. But, expecting so much from someone so young…

It was reckless.

“More fire, more burning things,” Isabella said, from her little corner in the dark. “Like Inez.”

“Inez is giving us exactly what we needed from her. Lawrence, no, we just aren’t giving her what she needs. If we can’t show her why we earned our place… it sets us back, but not by much. We’re already here, and they can’t call for a vote to get rid of us so soon, right?”

Then I considered it.

“Right?” I asked, a little less sure.

“I don’t know how Mrs. Carter does things. Maybe? We probably in some grace period at the moment, but we shouldn’t push, it probably won’t last long.”

“We shouldn’t push it… but we are. I hope Lawrence… I hope we can get our shit together.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Sarah said. “I believe in you.”

From anyone else, I would have taken those a hollow sentiment. But from Sarah, it made me able to stand a little taller.

“Start by turning Inez into ashes,” Isabella said. “Burn her and her operation down.”

“For the next meeting, let’s go with someone who actually likes us,” I said. “My ego doesn’t need another beatdown.”

“Probably for the best,” D said, “But I think we should move on to something else. For the time being.”

She flipped the laptop around, showing me the screen. I walked closer to the desk to get a better read on it.

“You got this from Nathan again?” I asked, reading the message.

“Yeah, can you believe that? He’s been really helpful, lately. He’s the best.”

“I’m sure he didn’t have a choice but to help you. So, anyways, what is this? Something about a meeting?”

“Ah, right, not a meeting, actually, more like a gathering, or… what’s a good word for a lot of people coming together for a party but it’s not really a party like they’re not going there for fun and the cops might be there because there’s probably to be a lot of trouble?”

“Um… sounds like a riot to me,” I said.

D nodded. “Riot! Right. It’s going to be a riot.”

I could feel the energy in the air. A tension that reached. Reaching for the night sky, wanting to pull the moon and stars down to earth, crashing it all around us.

D wasn’t wrong about this. Where there was tension, there was the risk of a snap. And the risk was high. It reached.

A lot of people at the Wellport Skate Park. Kids, adults. Protesters and police.

Enough had gathered that this could get real ugly, real fast.

The entire park was packed, everyone standing shoulder to shoulder. No room to push through, unimpeded, on a skateboard.

There were several rings of people, surrounding the entrance of the park itself. Sort of like the bottom half of a target, if I had pulled back and up, looking from a roof.

Kids and younger adults in the park, doing everything they could, given the little room they had to work with. They still managed a lot.

Cheering, yelling into the open air, over loud music. Rocking back and forth to the beat. The bass boomed, contrasted by the higher shrills. Different groups in the crowd were chanting different things at different intervals, so it was hard to discern what the actual message was. The feeling, however, was made as clear and bright as the moon.

Frustration.

The first ring around the park and its entrance were the cops. Police cars were parked in wait, lights flashing, spinning through strong red and blue hues. Unlike those in the park, they were more stationary, communicating with other at intervals, getting the occasional update, making sure this wouldn’t get out of hand. As much as I wasn’t fond of a police presence in my territory, they were doing a decent job on keeping an eye on things.

Doing most of the work for us.

The second ring were the onlookers, those who were here just for the spectacle of it. Watching, taking videos, wasting their time. It bugged me, seeing them here, seeing everyone here. Too many eyes on my territory. Too much scrutiny and pressure. Pressure that could burst.

Then the last ring, the one farthest back, was us. The Fangs, watching everything and everyone, making certain that the situation wouldn’t get any worse.

In that way, I hoped D was wrong about this becoming a riot.

“I don’t like this,” I said out loud. I shared my sentiments with D.

“Me too me too,” D said. She hopped a few times, trying to get a better look, but everyone around was too tall for her. She made a growling sound.

If we watched from rooftops, we’d immediately get spotted by the police. We needed to keep a low profile, here.

D immediately casted that aside as she scrambled to the top of the van, standing on it. She put her hands to her eyes, pretending to hold binoculars.

“Wow, that’s a lot of people!”

“D!” I hissed, “Get down from there!”

We were at the edge of the action. Too far to be noticed, but close enough to get a sense of things.

But there was still a sizable group around us, and it wasn’t just our Fangs. Some I could categorize as part of that second ring.

Some stared as D acted out. Stood out.

I hissed again, between sharp teeth.

D!”

Groaning, D hopped to the ground, dusting herself off. Exaggerating.

“I saw Uncle J,” D said, just under her breath, as if the man in question could somehow hear her, over all this noise.

“Gomez?”

“Over there!” D pointed and hopped, but she wasn’t indicating any specific direction. I knew to look for him now, though.

“I didn’t like this before, and now I’m worried,” I said. “Everyone’s coming out tonight, makes it seem like something big is about to happen.”

“Something big is happening right now.”

I looked to my side. Not at D.

Nathan stood, hunched over with a lean, hat and then hood over his head.

“And shit is about to go down,” he added.

“And if you know what that shit is, now would be a good time to tell us,” I said.

“I don’t,” Nathan said, shaking his head. “I just know about this.”

“I appreciate you giving us the heads-up, though. But, are you going to be okay, standing around us like this?”

“It’s cool,” he said, cool. “No one knows I’m here, and it’s not like anyone really cares where I’m at, anyways.”

“I care!”

That was from D.

“You’re always free to join us,” I told him. “We could offer you protection, whatever that means to you. D brought up that you’ve been a help, lately. Again, I appreciate it.”

“Nah,” Nathan said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hood. “Not my thing, this street shit. I’m just here because I’m here, you know? I didn’t ask for this.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

Up ahead, the crowd roared. I checked, but there wasn’t any new changes.

“Whatever happens here, it’ll fuck me up,” Nathan days, looking ahead. “So I have to let someone know, and the cops sure as shit won’t do anything about it.”

“In their defense, they’re here now.”

“Yeah, well, I still don’t trust them.”

Looking back into the crowd, I saw some of the cops, keeping everyone in the second ring at a distance. James Gomez was there, somewhere. Here in my territory. Even though I had given him my warning.

The park was stewing, the police keeping on a lid, but if pressure got to a boiling point…

“Let’s hope they won’t have to do anything but stand there,” I said. “D, any ideas?”

“I think… we should just see what happens.”

“You don’t think there’s a way to de-escalate this?”

“You’re asking the wrong person for that, Vivi. Our best bet would be that everyone leaves on their own, peacefully. But, knowing people, peace is kind of a pipe dream.”

It was disappointing, hearing that as a forgone conclusion.

“There’s only one way for this end. For everything.”

Isabella was leaning against the van, hanging farther back, hands tugging at her backpack.

Between D, Nathan, and Isabella, I felt somehow ancient. Sarah wasn’t here, having been sent out with the rest of the Fangs, extending our reach across the park and the surrounding streets. Lawrence was also absent, but he was sitting this out, entirely. After that performance in front of Inez this afternoon, he finally agreed to take the rest of the day off.

And as soon as we got settled, we could work on him, work on us. Me.

The constant running back and forth between different things. Taking care of the territory, meeting with the other gang leaders, and everything that was going on within the Fangs. Lawrence.

While I could sympathize with him wanting to push forward, he had his limits. He was human. I, however, was not.

“And let’s hope you’re wrong about that,” I said, to D and Isabella.

Before either of them could get a chance to respond, the crowd roared again, but it was more uniform, in response to something.

“My fellow soldiers!”

Heads everywhere turned. Mine included.

Off in the central area of the skate park, on top of one of a cement wall that repurposed into a ramp, someone was standing.

A man, from the overall build, but their face was obscured.

A mask?

Couldn’t tell what the exact design was, from here. They were too far.

And as if to directly contrast the mask, their outfit stuck out like a light in the dark. A bright neon green coat that reflected hard spotlights that hit him. The beams moved in coordination with one another, to keep the masked man in focus as he sauntered around, yelling into the megaphone.

The amount of planning just to set that up, it didn’t sit well with me.

“How- how is the energy tonight!”

The crowd at the park cheered, loud. I saw some of the cops tense up.

“Someone had to bring them all here,” I muttered.

“And he’s getting them all riled up,” D said.

“That sounds amazing! Fucking fierce!”

Once more, the crowd responded in turn.

“Before we begin, I want to thank our sponsors, for allowing us this space to freely express the hurt, and the injustice, that has been brought down upon us as a people!”

The voice sounded familiar, but the megaphone distorted it, masked it. I couldn’t pin it down.

“What’s he talking about?” I asked. “What people?”

“You didn’t notice?” Nathan questioned. “Or maybe I’m just not used to seeing that many Asian people all at once. Not in this neighborhood, anyways.”

I tried checking the crowd again, but like D, I wasn’t tall enough.

“No,” I said, “I didn’t pick up on that.”

The man was still saying his piece. Yelling it.

“These past weeks, these months, have been nothing but torture for us. The assaults, the violence, all because of a few, certain individuals. Harrian Wong, and the Blue-fucking-moon!”

The crowd shouted. The cops started communicating amongst each other.

I tensed.

“They said the Bluemoon was one of us, looked like you or me, but what does that justify? What does that suggest? That we’re monsters? That we’re something to be feared? Is this what America thinks of us? Huh?”

Several people got up on the platform the man was standing on. Each were holding briefcases and heavy bags. Several were getting them open.

“Well fuck that noise! If they want to give us smoke, we’ll hit them like a fucking flood!”

“D…” I said.

“I know.”

One of the people by the masked man handed him a briefcase. He raised it into the air. The others started tossing stuff out into the crowd. I couldn’t see what it was from where we were.

But the cops were winding up. Tension.

“Countless victims, brothers and sisters who aren’t getting the protection they need. They’ve had to come to me for that shit!”

The briefcase fell upon, releasing the contents into the air. Paper, stacks of them, getting caught by the wind, carried far across the park and the rings of people.

The man kept lecturing while the papers soared.

“No more, yeah? We’re taking our shit back! I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and now, I am finally allowed the means. My own Helter Skelter.”

A crowd, a gathering, but it wasn’t a party. Loud pops blasted into the air like firecrackers.

This isn’t a party.

Screams, roars. From everyone.

I felt the people around us falter, get pushed back.

Guns.

Snap.

“They were handing out guns into the crowd,” I said.

“Not just they,” D said, “I think it’s-”

A gunshot stole that last word from D’s mouth. It was close, loud.

The panic was spreading out, far and wide. The crowd was rushing out from the park, continued to be egged on by the masked man. Firing, shooting at the rings of people surrounding them.

I pulled D on instinct, hugging her close, retreating back to the van.

“It was a trap, for everyone!” I yelled, “We have to get out of here!”

“Shit!”

I turned and saw Nathan, already running away, getting submerged into a wave of people, rushing out from the park.

Police were already taking action, firing back, but they didn’t have anything lethal, just standard equipment to handle a riot, which this now was.

No, worse.

This was so much worse.

A literal, bloody mess.

I pushed D into the van, I left the door open for Isabella to get in.

“Close it!” D yelled.

I closed it.

The window was kept up, so I had to yell to coordinate a quick plan.

“Get the other Fangs! Make sure they’re okay, leave containing this to the cops!”

Make sure Sarah’s okay, I thought.

“What about you?” D yelled. More shots rang out, louder. They were coming closer.

With my thoughts still on Sarah, I answered.

“Maybe I can find the guy in the mask!”

Vivi-”

“I won’t be long, I won’t be stupid! Go!”

The van started, moving in reverse. It didn’t move very fast, now that there was a lot of people trying to get through.

I turned.

I faced the crush of people. Chaos and confusion gripped the scene and brought everything and everyone down with them.

I swatted at something close to my face.

Papers had scattered all throughout the place. Descending like gentle snow, which contrasted against the simultaneous and sudden hail of bullets.

My fingers wrapped around the paper, clutching it. As more flew around me, I-

I only meant to get a glance, but what I saw caught my eye. Stole it, really.

Standing stock-still, I watched the weather around me swirl. Snow and hail.

Etched into the elements, engraved deep with the color of an apparition, hundreds of Alexis Barnetts drifted past, dispersing into the open air.

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089 – Tearz

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I had stepped out to the wind and rain, alone with my thoughts.

Isabella walked alongside me, whispering over the weather’s hum.

“He went too far. He didn’t go easy on you at all.”

We were on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings than the road, careful as to not get splashed in case a car came passing by. I had taken the umbrella that Lawrence offered, holding it so I could cover both me and Isabella. One side of my shoulder and arm still got wet.

“But he’s right, which makes it harder to just ignore what he had to say.”

“There’s a difference between being right and being rude about it.”

“And you’re right about that, but I still feel like he’s right about this. He had his reasons, and he was completely justified.”

“But that’s not right, Wendy. You need to be more aware about how much you really have. You can’t, or you shouldn’t let yourself be pushed around. Don’t let yourself get beat on so much. Just because you can heal quicker than most doesn’t mean you should just stand there and tank the hits.”

“Funny. Lawrence said something like that.”

“Then I’m right, right?”

I wanted to agree, to say that she was right, but I couldn’t find it in me to give her the benefit of the doubt, on that.

“Maybe,” I said, the word drowned out by sound.

Rain kept crashing down, refusing to relent. As it hit the pavement, more water kicked back up, resulting in a soft mist that couldn’t be avoided. Droplets brushed against my cheeks, touching the lenses of my glasses, leaving a faint trace. Warm, tepid in a way. Uncomfortable.

Still getting wet, even with an umbrella. It made me feel as though putting in any effort would only be vain attempts. Useless. Worthless.

The mist turned everything about me into a muted haze, from the sounds to the colors. When a car did pass, the lights would be faded and fuzzy. Nothing was vibrant, everything had been made dull, it was like I was walking through a monochrome world.

Wandering thoughts continued to whisper to me.

“And screw D for going behind your back, too.”

Isabella’s voice echoed, carrying a haunting quality to it.

“Don’t say that,” I told her. “She didn’t… do that.”

“Didn’t she, though? She could have told you what she was looking for when you all went to the barn. She could have clued you in. Instead of just leaving you behind to go off and do her own thing, and then she tosses you out to the wolves, to get chewed up and spat out. The plural ‘wolves’ being just Lawrence, in this case.”

“I think I got that.”

“So you get my point? She went behind your back, and set you up to take the fall. How can you even trust her anymore? If you ask me, she’s a total b-”

“Language,” I said, like a reflex. And like a reflex, I cringed at myself for saying it. I had sounded just like D.

Isabella groaned at the end of the word, irritated at being spoken over. I tried to interrupt her, but I could still hear that particular word ringing in my head.

“Again, though, how are you okay with her going behind your back like that?”

“D didn’t go behind my back. I’m sure she had her reasons for doing what she did, and how she went about doing it. It was my fault for not taking the search at the barn all that seriously. I bet D felt as if she was picking up the slack.”

“You don’t have to go and blame yourself for everything. Didn’t Sarah say something like that?”

“Along those lines,” I said.

“See? You keep doing this, and she keeps doing that. This wouldn’t be the first time she’s gone off to enact some other plan without your knowledge, would it?”

That question brought up a particular example. The Lunar Tower. D had went dark for some time, leaving me and Lawrence to scramble to catch up while still trying to get a handle of the Granon situation. It turned out that D had been caught up in her own machinations in trying to help us, and brought Styx into our little tangle. Which lead to Styx coming back to give us the El Paso job.

D had her reasons about why she couldn’t tell us about Styx, and why she went off on her own, but the point did remain. She had enacted her own plan without our knowledge. Behind my back. And she still refused to get into the particulars, claiming that they weren’t relevant. But, were they? Were they really?

Not just the tower. Even some as small as setting up an altercation to draw out Fillmore, the first time we visited the territory, back when it was in other hands. It was only for a few minutes, but she’d left me behind, then, too.

“That’s how she operates. It’s not perfect, but we wouldn’t have gotten this far without her.”

“Doesn’t it bug you?”

Rain filled the silence that followed.

“I’ll,” I started. I paused. “Maybe. I can talk to her about it. I’d want to sort myself out first, though, before I start throwing any stones.”

“Why?”

The question echoed in my mind.

“Glass houses and all. And I don’t think I can recover right now if anything else breaks.”

“I don’t see why you’d want to go easy on them when they didn’t show you the same courtesy. Wendy, you may work with these people, but they aren’t your friends, and they certainly won’t ever be family.”

Isabella was testing those glass barriers, now, with every pointed statement. I deflected with something else. Wandering.

“I just wish I could match the V that’s in my head. That strength, or to even just be competent. I tried, you know, to not just play the part. Like, if I say it, or think it enough, I might be able to become the mask I wear. A monster.”

Isabella followed me on this particular change in direction.

“But you have, Wendy. Remember EZ and Krown? You obliterated them and their gangs, and took over their territory. Sounds pretty monsterous to me.”

“But I had help, back then. D was there, and so was Reggie, Tone… Sarah. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did, if I didn’t have people with me. I… couldn’t have done it by myself.”

A hard thing to admit, but I’d have to come to terms with it, and soon.

“So you needed some back up, so what? That’s nothing special. All I’m saying is you can do so much more than anyone, or anything else. Lawrence doesn’t have any right, talking to you like that. Who does he think he is?”

“He’s a teammate, and another leader of the gang. Not sure if I can straight up call him a friend, but the point remains, what he has to say matters.”

Isabella went quiet for a minute. The rain said its piece. Mindless chatter.

“It matters as much as you allow it to,” she then said.

“How much weight do I give his words, then?”

“Um, none, really. You stand so far above everyone else they can’t see you. They couldn’t possibly see where you’re coming from, what you’re really capable of. You are so much more than what anyone else can comprehend. You’re not a monster, Wendy, you’re the devil.”

The devil. I wasn’t sure about that wording, but I didn’t dislike it.

“But with help, I can be the Devil,” I said. “With a capital ‘D.’”

Isabella muttered something, but it was lost to the rain. I could imagine what it was, though.

We turned a corner, staying on the sidewalk, closer to the buildings. I was starting to recognize certain places, forming my own, personal landmarks. A post office, meaning we’d pass the Wellport construction- the skate park, then the laundromat. The lady who owned the place, Tita Lorene, she was nice, but she kept offering us something to eat every time we passed by. I couldn’t eat any of it, and it wasn’t like I could just keep giving everything to D. I started planning the rest of the route in my head, in case we’d have to go around the laundromat. I’d rather not lug around warm… what did she call it, pancit?

Either way, I’d rather not lug around food, especially since we weren’t heading back yet. Wouldn’t want it to spoil.

Past the laundromat was the Fill Market. It wouldn’t be a bad idea stop by and see how Fillmore was doing.

I had multiple ways of going about this. I could have gotten a ride from Sarah and taken a look at things that way. But I chose this weather this, instead, despite the rain, despite how it made me feel. I wanted to be on streets, to see how everything was going from that perspective. It would give me a better sense of how the locals were taking to us being here, and how to adjust from there, if necessary.

And, just, I’d rather be alone, for the moment.

“Wanna turn from King to Barton?” Isabella asked, referring to the street names.

“We’ll go around,” I answered. “Explore elsewhere, then touch back on some other key places. I know where I’d want to start.”

Isabella glanced at me.

“Expanding your horizons?”

“In a sense. There are some things I want to see with my own eyes.”

“Like what?”

“You know, like, art and stuff.”

Seemingly in spite of the wind and rain, Isabella laughed.

“Art? You are such a mess, you put yourself down in one second and then think so highly of yourself in the next. Honestly, you’re-”

Isabella didn’t say any more, but I felt as if I knew what she was getting at.

Silent, we finished the length of the sidewalk, stopping at a corner. And I saw, and heard, why Isabella elected to shut her mouth.

Another person was there, waiting for the light on the other side to turn. We waited with him.

He had been talking on his phone, lowering his own volume somewhat as he noticed us standing by him. I only caught the end of a few sentences.

“-the wire, out of time, Nat.”

Not a lot to go off of.

Isabella and I remained silent, minding our distance, our tongues. Ears. I was reminded about the journalists that Lawrence warned us about.

I knew it was just my paranoia, but exercising caution was never a bad policy, especially when around strangers. There was always a chance that they’d turn out to be, well, strange. I had to always be on my guard, wary of any potential threats. Constantly diligent, never distracted.

I almost laughed. Like I’d be able to keep that up. I wasn’t that capable. Like I was even capable.

Isabella grumbled over the rain, clearing her throat. Notes of irritation.

The light turned green.

We all took a step off the sidewalk, crossing to the other side. I kept the edges of the man in the corner of my vision, watching, waiting, for anything. If anything.

Focusing ahead, the light had a timer on it, counting down for when it would turn back to red. Six, five, four…

With every step, my heart pounded. With every second, my muscles tensed up. Would the man do something? Would he try?

The man continued his conversation as we crossed.

“We’re down to the wire if we don’t pick up on something, soon. I, yeah, I know Nat, I’m doing as much as I can. You want shoestring? You can’t get anymore shoestring than this.”

Still, not much.

Still, I kept my paranoia at a shallow level, easy to tap into. It was a pain. But, it was a necessary one.

As much as my head ached in trying to recall, I thought back to Remus, and how easy it was for him to trick me, deceive me. I had helped Solace, up until the moment I wasn’t, and I had to…

My head pounded, compounded by each incoming droplet, hitting the umbrella as if it was hitting me. I couldn’t seem to escape it.

Then again, I did bring this on myself.

Fuck, I just didn’t want it to be easy for anyone else again. To lead me astray.

Isabella reached the other side first, and I was a step behind her. She went one way, and I made sure to keep her covered by the umbrella. A quick check to my rear, and I didn’t see the man that was walking with us. He must have went the other way. I couldn’t hear him anymore.

I caught up with Isabella.

“Lucky him,” she said. “He wasn’t up to anything, after all.”

“That we know of. He’s not around for us to know, anymore.”

“Did you want to tail him?”

Did I? For a split second, I actually did consider it, follow him for a block or two. It wouldn’t even be hard to stay out of sight and earshot. The rain would have actually helped, in that regard. Stay above him, stay just far enough, and he would have never known that I was ever there.

For a split second.

“Not necessary,” I answered. “If we’re going to operate like that, we’ll be stuck here all week. Let’s pick our battles with more concrete stuff, it’s smarter that way.”

“Fine,” Isabella said.

We continued walking, our footfalls drowned out by rainfall.

I wasn’t as familiar with this part of the territory, but that was also part of the reason why I was here, outside, in the rain. To make myself familiar. It wouldn’t do, to be a leader of a gang and not have built a rapport with the locals. And if we managed to build one that was solid enough, we could grow our numbers while still maintaining quality, with more skilled volunteers more willing to step. It might even get to the point where the people would rather come to us than the police, if there was a problem that required some sort of force.

Cultivate a good foundation now, and it would be easier to build on top of that, later.

The scenery changed as we ventured more into the uncharted parts of the territory. Subtle, but there. More shoes hanging from power lines, bigger piles of trash that were sodden and coming apart from all the water, getting onto the street or other corners, deeper cracks in the pavement for larger puddles.

I watched my step, avoiding the puddles. It felt weird, having to mind them now. An abstract, absurd fear, that I would actually fall in and sink, and disappear completely. Obvious, it could never happen, impossible even, yet I still found myself proceeding with caution.

Darn, I resented the fact that I was being like this. Being so weak.

Isabella stepped forward, picking up her pace. I lifted my chin, my ears perked. I heard it the same moment she brought it up.

“People,” she said, with a warning tone.

I nodded, heeding it.

Looking through the rising mist, I noted shapes as they moved, up ahead.

Coming from around the corner, crossing from one side of the road to the other, a mass of shadows, ambiguous in its outline, but sinister in its presence. It spread out, taking up most of the sidewalk and even spilling back onto the road. I noted each individual form as they solidified, features coming in, becoming more clear.

People. They were coming this way, and they were shouting. Loud, over the rain.

Isabella and I moved more to the side as they approached.

The mass of shadows barrelled through. An assemblage of limbs, legs used to run, arms used to grope. I saw the heavy black bags slung across shoulders, clutched close to chests. Even now, they were still in that mode, that mindset, clouded by the mist and adrenaline. Anyone who wasn’t a part of that mass was an obstacle, needed to be taken out or taken from.

And, even though, we had made space for them on the sidewalk, the collective group still thought Isabella and I had to be taken out or be taken from. I saw the direction in their approach, the spread in their numbers. Our direction.

Shouting, different voices adding to the chaos of their sudden intrusion. With how disorganized it all seemed, it was borderline panic.

I didn’t hesitate or question what I’d have to do.

Not the head of the mass, but close. One of the other pairs of eyes on the thing’s ‘neck.’

Limbs reached out, getting close to us. Dangerous. They’d grab Isabella’s backpack if they swiped any closer, probably grabbing her, too. My paranoia kicked up a notch, taking a new form, one that forced my limbs into action.

Creature on creature. Monster taking on monsters.

I had to sell it to myself like that. An easier sell.

My hand went down, knocking a limb back. It retreated, slinking away, and more and more pairs of eyes fell on me. The mass stumbled, the motion coursing like a wave, each shape taking their own moment to realize and grasp why there was a sudden interruption.

Then, each shape, each person, took their own course of action in the wake of my presence. I could see some of their faces now, twisting in either anger or confusion. And those in the former category, whose blood boiled more readily, came back swinging without a second thought or question. Something in their programming. If obstacle, then obliterate.

I could sympathize. But not enough to let them have their way.

The momentum of the group carried them forward, until we found ourselves surrounded. A quick check saw that the numbers were less than just before.

Glass broke, more shouting, all in the near distance.

“Hit and run robberies,” Isabella said, “Using the rain as some kind of cover.”

“Interesting,” I said. I looked around. A leader. The middle head of the beast.

Couldn’t find anyone that stood out, but it didn’t matter. I was already moving, already swinging.

My umbrella went down, past my head, my hand moving to wrap it and lock it closed. In a blur, faster than their eyes could register or recognize.

Gripping the handle of the umbrella, I swung upward.

I felt it connect.

I tried to keep in mind the structural integrity of the thing, my own strength, and how hard it would be to break or dislocate a bone. I adjusted accordingly.

Someone got the wrong end of my particular stick, and was sent off their feet, falling on top of several of his buddies. Surprised by his sudden lift and descent, they were sent down with him.

Others tried to grab at us, at Isabella. I brought the umbrella back down, smacking at hands and arms, poking at them to stay back. A quick look behind me, and I had to swing there, too. It wasn’t like in movies, where fighting in a large group would only lead to a one on one altercation with the rest standing around, waiting their turn. This mass of people knew they had the numbers, and they were trying to use it to their advantage.

Tried, trying. It was an attempt.

I swung again, hitting harder to make them back away even more, literally beating it into their heads that their strategy would not work out well for them. It was tough to juggle, though, because as much as this was already a scene, I didn’t want to drag it out any longer, escalating the situation. I’d rather not show my entire hand and make my strength that obvious. All I wanted was for them to stop what they were doing, to leave, and to leave us alone. But I couldn’t seem to do that without getting someone hurt, or resorting straight to violence.

But, whatever. It got their attention, and it was mine to command.

“Wendy!”

More hands, closer and then closer to Isabella, right by my side. I wasn’t focusing hard enough on my flank. I swiped again, and heard something audibly crack. A yelp followed.

The rain never relented, and I was feeling the full weight of it as it crashed from above. I didn’t have the umbrella over my head anymore. Water splashed as I kept swinging, poking the mass to stay away.

In time, as I gauged their response and stance, they were staying away. Keeping back.

With all the moving and spinning around I had to do, my hood was slipping off my head, leaving my face exposed to the elements and eyes.

I peered through my glasses, the mist and the rain, meeting their eyes. Had to diffuse this situation with something that wasn’t just dishing out hurt.

That wasn’t me having to be me.

“No,” I said, speaking over the rain and other voices. “Just no.”

I tilted my head down some, so I was staring directly ahead without any clouded lenses blocking my sight. I found a face, and met their eyes. Familiar.

A guy, a boy.

They had thought so too, apparently, because their eyes grew wide, their expression screwed with fear. I could almost see their pupils dilate.

“Shit, it’s her! Get the fuck out of here!”

His words rippled through the rest of the gathered mass. They felt it, and decided to ride it through.

The group took one massive step backward.

Their attention diverted in different directions, all away from me and Isabella. They didn’t take as much time to soak in my being here like that one boy did. Regardless, they listened, and scattered into the wind and the rain.

They ran, away from us and back across the street. Some tripped over their feet and each other, their escape wasn’t at all organized.

But, they had given us some room now, letting me move up the sidewalk to investigate where I had heard the glass break from earlier. I readjusted my hood as I moved, shrouding more of my face.

The front of a bank. It looked like an older establishment, there wasn’t even an ATM installed by the entrance. The door was hanging by its hinges, open, glass shattered into pieces, some carried away by falling water.

More commotion inside, shouting and running. Looking inside, I noticed more shapes going back and forth, darting.

Some even darted back outside.

“Hey! What did Noah say-”

They stopped and stared. Their reaction was similar to the other boy’s.

“Fuck, we’re dipping!”

They turned back around and dipped inside. Not back out the other door.

A back exit?

These kids had gathered a large enough group and had the gall to participate in a series of daylight robberies. If they thought they could get away with it, then there were some problems in the dynamics in play, in this territory.

Dynamics that only I would be able to correct.

Darn.

Didn’t want to show my hand, didn’t want to resort to violence. I tried to come up with something that would send a similar message without revealing too much.

I improvised as I jumped.

The buildings in the territory weren’t very tall, a relatively tall, athletic person might have been able to scale a similar height with enough extensive effort. It only took a light leap for me to get up and over. The real use of any energy was in going across the roof, to get to the other side of the building. I crossed the length in three steps.

I saw the drop into an alley. I took it.

I landed before exit door swung open. When it did, I was there, waiting for them.

Eyes even wider than the other boy’s. Yells were louder, too.

The smaller mass here got backed up by ones that were frozen at the door. Congested. They were stuck, and I could sense it was the most scared they had been in some time.

“Other way, other way!”

Another dissenting order, because a boy got pushed forward, out the door, towards me. I caught him, holding myself back from swiping with my umbrella. With how his arms were thrown out, the panic in his expression, he wasn’t trying to provide a distraction for the others to run away.

If anything, he was the distraction.

Forcing myself some more, I let the situation settle, I let the others make their getaway. I wasn’t police, I wasn’t here to make an arrest. But if I scared them enough to think twice before they tried this again, then I did my part.

I let go of the boy, looking down the exit into the bank. No one in the small hall. They had all cleared out.

Checking beside me, I was relieved to see that Isabella had caught up, standing there with her hands around the straps of her backpack. She looked intact, which was always good. She didn’t even look all that wet.

“Now that was awesome!” Isabella said.

Then I checked the boy.

Familiar, too.

He had a hat and raincoat on, a foggy grey, but he didn’t look like a completely new person to me. No, with how he was standing and the general disposition of his being, it was vague, but I had definitely run into this boy, before.

Then it hit me. Rain pattered on the tops of our heads.

Looking down at the boy, I smiled. Sympathetic.

“You can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you, Nathan?”

Light poked holes through grey clouds above. The rain wouldn’t give up anytime soon, but it did give some space for something else to make way.

Isabella, me, and Nathan. We walked along the path back to King Boulevard. We had already passed Tita’s laundromat. The smell of pancit and lechon filled my nose, now that I had both hands full. I wasn’t very fond of how rich the odor was, but I was sure D would appreciate it.

The umbrella was back over my head, Isabella’s too. Nathan could manage on his own.

“Why are you leaving so much space there?”

“You haven’t exactly earned any special treatment, Nathan.”

“Special treatment?”

“I thought I gave you a job to do. It’s not like you had an exclusive deal with us or anything, but I can’t help but feel… disappointed? Maybe I should have set one up.”

“You basically did. That girl came to check on my work every now and then. It got annoying, especially since she kept taking my cans to spray her own shit.”

“That… does sound like something she would do.”

“God, I have to start watching my back more carefully. I still feel like she might be watching me.”

What the hell did she do while I was out?

“And even though you were under such scrutiny, you still felt the need to go out and do this?”

“I, I don’t know. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Seems like I’ve heard this before.”

“It’s true. A job like that isn’t going to keep food in my stomach forever, and my friends… the other kids on the block weren’t up to learning to spread a new tag for a new gang. They don’t play like that, and that pissed them off. I got roped into another job to, uh, prove myself.”

“So people are still not used to us being around?”

“Maybe, kind of. Some are getting around, the streets have been less hot since you all took over, but people get used to how things are, even if they weren’t so great. They understood EZ and Krown. We don’t know shit about you guys.”

“What, so we have to doing some kind of community outreach program?”

“No, please, you don’t have to go that far. That’s, well I don’t know what that is but it feels corny.”

“Do you have any other bright ideas, then?”

Nathan grumbled, having taken a bite of what looked like an eggroll. Steam billowed out from the inside, revealing some meat and vegetables. Lumpia, Tita Lorene called it.

Her business was a laundromat. What was she doing serving food, on top of that?

Nathan spoke with his mouth full. “Just give it time. If you really care about doing right by this town, just keeping doing you, and let whatever you have in motion fall into place. Maybe people will come around in time. Shit, maybe I will.”

Doing right by this town. The probability of that seemed slim, considering Nathan’s words, and considering what the ultimate goal of this whole operation was. The gang.

Not that I’d bring that up at the moment. But, getting the territory we had on our side would help make everything move more smoothly.

I spoke. “Sounds like we have big shoes to fill.”

“No shit, EZ and Krown have been here for a hot minute, and that’s not even counting when they were working together. That’s history, that’s before I was born.”

“Dang. I had gotten an idea of that when I talked to Fillmore, but still.”

“Who cares? Out with the old, in with the so much better.”

I gave Isabella a look.

“Well,” I said, looking ahead, “You were up for going on this walk with me, getting some food.”

“Not like I had much of a choice. I’m not about to refuse someone who represents the sitting gang.”

“Or maybe you wanted to go on a lunch date with a pretty girl?”

The reactions I got were varied. Isabella laughed, Nathan coughed.

“Wow,” I said, “Whatever. We’re here anyways.”

“Yeah, let’s keep moving,” Nathan said.

We turned into the Wellport skate park. We were back.

There wasn’t anyone here. Not surprising. No one in their right mind would come here when the weather was this bad. It was impossible to skate with the pavement and ramps being so slick.

Whether or not that said something about us being here, now, I wasn’t going to dwell on that too much.

I let Nathan lead the way for this part.

We walked over to the opposite end of the park, going past some metal structures and half-raised cement walls. I couldn’t even call it poorly constructed, because nothing had been set or made permanent. It didn’t even get a chance to be constructed.

Nathan lead us over to one of the walls near the back of the construction. One of the few that were actually placed into its intended position.

Watching more of my steps, over more puddles and broken chips of metal and forgotten power tools, I was able to orient myself to see what Nathan had to show us.

A face. The eyes were closed, with rough, crude lines to exaggerate the creases and folds, accentuating how tight they were being shut. A few dashes to suggest a nose, scrunched to better sell the twisted up expression the piece was conveying.

But they were small in content, part of a larger whole. They weren’t the focus.

It was the mouth. The corners pulled back, wide, into a smile that looked crazed. The tongue was sticking out, long like a serpent’s, hanging over the lower lip, curled and forked. Every tooth on the upper row were in view and detailed, especially the two pointed canines. They were elongated, like razors, as if they had been filed sharp. With how wild the whole expression looked, it was like the face was laughing.

And the blood.

So much blood. Dripping from the teeth, the tongue, and splashed back past the corners of the eyes. A grim, grizzly picture.

The blood even spelled out a word, across the teeth. Fang.

“She came up with this design?” I questioned.

“It’s what she commissioned me to do. Why, you didn’t come up with this?”

“No,” I said.

Then again, I didn’t have a chance to come up with anything on my own. I wasn’t in town.

“You don’t like it?” Nathan asked.

Isabella spoke, “If it means anything, I love it.”

“I do not… dislike it,” I said, reserved. It struck me in a way I couldn’t quite express why, or put a finger on. It was a visceral, it was violent, and it was monstrous.

And, also, it was telling.

This was the gang’s tag, the image we wanted to bring forward when doing business as Los Colmillos. This was our face. D wanted to use mine.

“If you’re worried about this being the final product, don’t,” Nathan said. “She gave me suggestions for more subtle graphics that you can put on business cards and stuff. Not sure why you’d want to get stuff like that printed. But I do have some test designs on another wall, around here.”

“This is all over the town?” I asked.

“Not all over, but I have noticed some people putting their own spin on the design. They’re pretty dope. I doubt they even know where it came from, yet.”

“Have people been asking around, trying to figure it out, learn more about the new gang in town?”

“Um, not really, or not that I know of.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m starting to think you don’t actually like the design,” Nathan said.

“I think it’s amazing,” Isabella. “It fits you so well, Wendy.”

“The design is good, Nathan, there’s just a lot to take in.”

And there was a lot to take in. I wasn’t sure why, but the face had an eerie effect to it, and it nagged. Tugged, really.

With the rain, water dripped down the face and eyes, sliding alongside the blood. The face looked like it was crying.

I had taken the long way around to getting here, and that applied in a more general sense than I would have liked. I detoured to see more of the town, came across Nathan, and wrapped back to the park. I had taken every deviation and distraction until I found myself back at the barn, where the truth was gone now, but traces of it had been hiding from me.

Spirals. I thought about what Lawrence showed me. Those pictures.

I had tried taking my mind off them for the internim. Distracting myself through diligence. But now I couldn’t run away. I had come back for a reason. Because, despite what Isabella had to say on the topic, I couldn’t do things by myself. I wasn’t good enough.

I spiraled back to this. And it was staring back at me.

Water dripped down our eyes.

I’d have a lot to talk with D about over dinner.

Previous                                                                                               Next

072 – Diligence/Distraction

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Oh, it is good to be back.

Even if I wasn’t in costume, it felt nice to be out and about in the territory again. It was refreshing.

What was not refreshing, though, was why I had to be out and about. Not exciting at all. Mundane, even.

I pushed the cart, and D threw more snacks inside.

We were just doing some shopping at the Fill Market – Philly’s as D liked to put it – and it wasn’t even for anything I needed. D just wanted to stock up my refrigerator and pantry again.

Not that I had any real use for either of them, but I still felt bothered by it. Her brazen disregard for other people’s personal space. Useful, when it wasn’t directed at me.

But, I wasn’t bothered enough to bring it up. I kept it to myself.

D tossed in a box of cookies, and then another. She kept taking things off the shelves as I passed, nonchalant, not being particularly picky in her choices.

The more snacks she collected, the more she was getting cramped. She was sitting inside the cart, facing me, taking boxes and bags as we went. I couldn’t see her feet, ankles, and shins, as the boxes kept piling on.

“Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?” I questioned, giving her a wary look as she dropped in yet another box. Donuts, this time. “Or a lot overboard?”

“I don’t think so,” D said, monotone, reaching over to take even more. The pile was getting up to her knees, now. “Why? Do you think so?”

“I know so, D.”

We got to the end of the aisle. I turned us around, moving into another, but I pulled the cart away every time D tried to reach for another snack.

“Hey,” she whined, still monotone. Dry.

“That’s more than enough,” I told her. “You’re the only one who’ll be eating them, anyways. And besides that, you’ve gotten so much that people are starting to look.”

D took a quick look around as we left the aisle. From the expression she had on her face, she didn’t seem to mind at all.

It was true, though, people were looking.

The weekend, at the busiest hour, with a lot of people. Shoppers who had to stock up for the coming week and the following weekend. I didn’t know that people went out in their Sunday best to go grocery shopping, but here they were, doing exactly that.

Bustling, and the place wasn’t very big as far as produce markets went, it took quite a bit of effort not to bump into anybody. D was making it even harder, too, with how she kept trying to take something from the shelves, people noticing and getting out of the way to accommodate her. As if she had no awareness of her surroundings.

Which made me realize there was a point to what she was doing.

“You getting what you came here for?” I asked, eyes forward, more attentive in what I was seeing. Playing catch up.

“Hm. Most definitely. There’s a lot to chew on, here.”

I gave the cart a hard shake before walking forward again. D lurched, some of the boxes of snacks and candy were knocked out of place, falling past her knees, landing in her lap.

“Punny,” I said.

D rearranged the boxes, placing them around her or between her legs. She didn’t have much space to work with.

“We’re not being very inconspicuous, are we?”

D wasn’t making any attempt to bring her voice down.

I met some of the looks coming our way. The staring. All of them varied. From caution, to fear, to downright contempt.

“Not at all,” I said. “We’re sticking out like, um…”

“Like gang members in a public space?”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

“And how are they reacting to us being here?”

I observed.

The people around us were mixed in race, attire, background. I noted some of the clothes they wore, the colors. Some were well-dressed for a Sunday service. Others… They weren’t as holy.

Gang colors. Different colors. Blue, white, and black.

Of the ones repping a group, the ones in black outnumbered the rest. This was our territory, now. But what did concern me were the others, those who had chosen to wear either blue or white. The Thunders, and The Royals.

Neither gang was active nor functioning, we had made sure of that. No, this was their form of protest, making known their displeasure and disapproval over the new, local powers that be. That they wouldn’t accept the changes happening in their community, and show that their allegiance was still elsewhere, even if there was no group for their loyalties to be placed in. Lost, displaced, angry ex-gang members.

I could feel the glares from a distance, as if they were trying to penetrate through me by looks alone. I was sure they wanted to do much worse.

“Not well,” I finally answered. “Most aren’t paying us any mind, but then there’s the rest, and they look like they want to tear us to pieces.”

D rested her arms on the sides of the cart. She slouched.

“They’re more than welcome to try, but they aren’t going to get very far. They’re just salty that they’re not at the top of the food chain, anymore.”

“Still with the food puns?”

“It fits. But my point remains. There’s nothing they can do about it. It’s not like they can fight us on it. Them and what army?”

“Them and any other disgruntled ex-members,” I mentioned. “And that isn’t a small group. Did you forget that the Thunders and the Royals were on decent terms when we first came in?”

“Yeah, yeah, but even then. They saw what happened to their leaders, their friends. Do you really think they’re to try something, and so soon? Now that’s just suicidal.”

Suicide. They would throwing themselves to their deaths if they tried to take back the territory.

I brought my voice lower as I said, “You’re assuming that I’d fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown.”

D didn’t lower hers as she replied, “You wouldn’t?”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away.

Was that how she saw me? My role in the gang? The muscle? It wasn’t untrue, though, and it was a role I had accepted, but it still felt… weird, being defined by only I was capable of, what I could do. By one part instead of the sum.

“I can, but I don’t have to,” I said. “They got their warning, and it was a pretty big one. They won’t do anything now, and if they ever get dumb enough to amass that army and plan, we’ll have gotten even bigger in the meantime, even more equipped to handle other threats. And, hopefully, we get to the point that the locals don’t even want us to leave.”

“Good thinking. I’m along the same lines. It’s just a matter of everyone settling into their new place. And you’re right about getting on the local’s good side. Anyone can take over, but it’s much harder to stay. Getting into the underlying system, becoming it, and making welcome changes is one way to do it.”

Like roots, I thought. Seeds for something better, in the future.

“But, it’s good to have a look at how things stand, now. Gives us a better picture of what to do next.”

“You did say that places like this are deep in the heart of the community, or something. And if you want to be in the know, you check around here.”

D snapped her fingers. “You’re getting it. See, you’re a natural, Wendy.”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away. Again.

I thought we were just going shopping.

I moved us to another aisle, but with more purpose, this time. I knew what to look out for, what to keep in mind, and D did her thing, as well. We were on the same wavelength now.

Though, she kept trying to grab for more snacks. I adjusted the cart to move her away from them.

I noted how the stream of people parted to go around us, trying not to get in our way. There wasn’t much space as it was, yet they were still willing to make the concession. Even those dressed in blue and white. They’d rather keep their distance, not risk what might happen if they wandered too close. An air of uncertainty.

And we were just two girls, neither of us were eighteen, and one of us wasn’t even a teen. There was no real reason for anyone to fear us. Not really.

They probably didn’t even know who we really were, our positions in the new gang. But they saw our colors, what we represented. We weren’t from around here, but we walked around like we owned the place. Which, in theory, we did.

“It’s probably time for us to go,” I said. “We’ve given everyone enough here stress to last the week.”

D murmured. “Fine, but…”

She glanced to the side.

Exhaling, I gave in, and moved the cart to the side.

A large, toothy grin was plastered on D’s face. I minded the gap.

Yes!” she cheered, a slight hiss at the end. “Thank you thank you!”

She grabbed multiple bags of tortilla chips before sheer excessiveness of her gluttony forced me to pull away again. Extraneous bags fell and crinkled onto the floor before D had to a chance to catch them.

Very conscious of the fact that people were watching, I simply peeled out of the aisle, ready to pay for everything.

Consider how much of the store’s inventory D took, it might as well be ‘everything.’

I took us over to the front of the store, into one of the many, busy lines. They were all lengthy, no shortcuts to take, here.

We waited, falling into a slow, languid pace, alongside everyone else. Checking our phones, listening to the soft background music from the intercom, lulled to a calm silence by the mundanity of a normal routine. Refreshing in its own way, I supposed. No matter what, whether someone was a gang leader or a regular churchgoer, everyone could get bored. It was a shared experience. Universal.

The wait didn’t last too long, though, and we arrived to drop off our stuff at the rubber conveyor belt. I started moving the boxes and bags of snacks and cartons of ice cream. D helped, taking them from the pile that had grown around and on top of her. She was still stuck inside the cart.

Then we reached the register. The cashier started scanning everything, and it took time.

“That’s a lot of…”

He started his comment, but he never finished. He had glanced up as he spoke, then froze up as he saw me, and D.

He recognized us?

As if it was a reflex, he bent down, hovering over his workstation, back to scanning the snacks, not saying a word and not facing in our general direction.

Weird.

D seemed to have picked up on it, too, saying, “Yo, loosen up, we don’t have anything planned this time. No need to be all worked up.”

“You know this guy, D?”

“You don’t remember? He checked you out last time we were here. Oh, and speaking of, he was totally hitting on you.”

The boy visibly twitched, having overheard D. She wasn’t exactly keeping it down.

“Was he?”

“It was so obvious, I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it. You must be really dense, Wendy.”

“I’m not dense, I just don’t recognize that stuff when it’s directed at me.”

“That’s what being dense means, silly.”

The boy lowered his head even more, rushing to get through the rest of the items. D did get a lot, though, and they didn’t seem to stop coming down the conveyor belt. I could sense he wanted to leave, but he wasn’t getting any reprieve.

I tried not to smirk or grin, but it was kind of funny, teasing this random stranger in a relatively harmless way. But then I caught myself.

Is D starting to rub off on me?

Darn.

If she was, I would hope it didn’t just go one way.

The boy finally got through about half of the snacks, but a hand on his shoulders made him freeze up even more.

We all turned.

Fillmore.

“I’ve got this, son, go help Omid at lane six.”

Without any hesitation, the boy switched with Fillmore, moving over to the other station. Fillmore took over, scanning, going even faster, but he wasn’t as tense about it.

“Ladies,” he said, greeting us with a curt nod as he worked.

I returned the favor.

“Fillmore.”

“Mr. Phil!”

D gave him a wave, both hands, cheery as ever.

“And hello to you, too, more specifically.”

Fillmore kept working as he addressed us more directly.

“Find everything alright?”

“Pretty much found and took everything,” I commented.

He let out a soft chuckle.

“At least someone’s buying from here.”

“Why?” I asked, checking the line behind us, the lines around us. “Looks pretty busy to me.”

Fillmore didn’t look up from his work.

“We’re running out of stock, inventory is beginning to thin out in the back. Weekends are usually the busiest times for us, so we have about, let me guess, two and a half months left? Give or take. Then…”

He didn’t continue.

“Then what?” D asked, “How come y’all aren’t getting any more stuff?”

I would have tapped D on the head, or messed with her hair. But, I was curious about the details. I wanted to hear more.

“Local farmers and manufactures don’t want to sell to us, none of the good ones. My guess is that they think we’re in a rough part of town, and they don’t want to do business where there’s potential risk. Which, well, I don’t see what the problem is now.”

He lifted his head, meeting my eyes. The first decent look I had of him in a while.

Weary, beyond exhaustion. The lines on his face were deeper, holding larger shadows. His beard looked greyer, his expression a touch somber. But even that had a sense of resignation to it, as if he didn’t have the energy to properly express himself. Just tired.

With his flat brim hat, his clothes from a bygone era, he was as old as he was old-fashioned. And even more withered, too.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” he breathed.

D answered him.

“It’s ‘cause you’re in trouble, and you’re reaching out for help. Nothing to be ashamed about.”

She gestured.

“How about we have a talk with these farmer guys?”

“Really?” Fillmore questioned.

“It’s nothing. We’ll show them we’re worth doing business with.”

His eyes squinted a bit. “I’d prefer if I didn’t have children taking care of something like this on my behalf. This doesn’t concern the streets. It’s proper business, between adults.”

“What happens on the streets is proper business, Mr. Phil, and we’re doing quite well in that regard. If I do say so myself. Besides, it doesn’t have to be us that takes care of it. We have other peeps who can smooth things out for you.”

“Do you?”

“You haven’t met him, but he’s capable,” I said. If we were still thinking along the same lines, we were both considering the same person for the job. “He’s also not a child.”

“His name’s Lawrence,” D said, “And if we were chess pieces, he’d be the knight. Tenacious, tough, and can move forward even when he takes a ‘L.’ You should meet him sometime, and you’ll know we’re serious.”

“I never doubted that you weren’t. Sure, let him visit. I’ll entertain this.”

Fillmore continued with the scanning, getting through more of the still huge set of sweets. Progress was incremental. I was growing more and more cognizant of the fact that we were holding the line up.

“Anything else we should know about?” D asked. She stretched her legs, now that she had more room to herself. “Any sidequests?”

I was starting to catch on why D had gotten so many snacks. To give us time, and more chances to get information out of Fillmore.

Fillmore scanned the last item, a box of thin mints. The register started beeping, and he pressed the keys.

Halfway done. He still had to bag everything. Everything.

He answered while he worked.

“Nothing worth reporting. Or if anything, see it for yourself. This is your land, now.”

“Ah, don’t be like that, Mr. Phil, you’re our eyes and ears! If there’s anything messed up, you should let us know. We might be able to do something about it.”

Look, don’t rely on the hearsay of an old man to get you anywhere. We’re your mess, now, so learn how to clean it up.”

“Boo, you’re no fun,” D grumbled.

Without another word, Fillmore finished bagging up our stuff and putting it back into the cart. I watched as D steadily disappeared underneath all the plastic.

“Ow,” she mumbled, as a bag bumped her in the head.

Fillmore dropped in the last one, and we were finally all done. He told us how much it all added up to – a staggering amount – and D only responded by giving him a credit card. I saw her fingers pop out from other side of the pile of plastic to hand it over.

“There was… one thing I wanted to say, though,” he said, words measured.

“Shoot,” I said.

He swiped the card, handing it back to D, but he had his eyes trained on me the entire time.

Then, his expression changed. The shadows dug even deeper, as he hung his head, the brim of his hat blocking my view of his eyes.

“It’s nothing,” he said, low.

“Now you’ve got me curious,” I said.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” D commented.

“No, I don’t want to keep you, and I do want you out of my store. I’ll let this pass.”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” I said, “But it doesn’t work like that. You have something to say, you tell us.”

I could feel it, now, the mounting pressure behind us. Pressing, pushing. The line was growing, the people were waiting, and the patience was thinning. People were moving over to other lanes because we were taking so long with Fillmore.

If this lasted any longer, I could imagine those in blue and white to use it as a reason to act out, make a sense of us being here. It would trouble, then, for everyone involved.

I waited for Fillmore.

He stood straight, taking one, long motion to get himself up. Nimble, smooth, for someone getting up there in years.

“I’ll keep it short then, to respect everyone’s time.”

“Fair,” I said.

With my undivided attention given to Fillmore, he said his piece.

“Look,” D said, “A sidequest.”

I looked.

A group, picking on an individual. Smaller, weaker than the rest of them. They were all boys, though.

All wearing white.

The smaller boy was backing away, but there wasn’t much room left between him and the wall. His hands were out, placating, as if he could tame the group that was inching closer. It wasn’t working.

D commented on the scene as it continued. A play-by-play.

“Oh. He fell. That’s not good.”

“Definitely not.”

“They’re laughing now, and I think he’s crying. I can’t tell from here, it’s too far. But I mean, he is rubbing his eyes, so it’s not a bad guess. And those guys, they’re laughing and, and, what’s the word? Look how they’re pointing and yelling at him.”

“Mocking?” I offered.

“Close. Wait, no… taunting, that’s it! Right, they’re taunting him, they want him to do something. That I can-”

D had stopped.

“What?” I asked.

She spoke. “That’s not good.”

What?”

“Gun. I see gun.”

I already had a hand on the door.

“Do we move?” she asked.

“Move,” I ordered, getting outside. D dropped her hands at the same time. She didn’t even have real binoculars, she just made pretend ones with her hands.

We both moved out of the van, and crossed the street.

Same neighborhood, different day. D’s rainbow spectrum of gelatos and ice creams would have melted hours ago if we had staked out all night.

Getting more familiar with the territory wasn’t a bad idea. Being more tuned in, learning more about the problems that plagued the area. What needed to be fixed and worked on.

But, it wasn’t just the bad. Learning about the good, the little charms that made the neighborhood unique was just as important, if not more. It wouldn’t do to simply take over a place and not take stock of the intricacies, the subtleties that make up the bigger picture. It would be, there, in the small details where we’d be more likely to slip up, if we weren’t aware of them, to know to look out for them. We’d have to be vigilant, and I’d have to be in the know.

Bikes braked and skateboards skidded into place as we moved through the Wellport construction site.

Abandoned after a building project fell through, the kids soon swept in to turn it into a skatepark, the flat, smooth surfaces and huge cement cylinders with the upper halves missing made for good spot to skate and ride, hanging out and trying out new tricks. The gang presence kept anyone else from coming in and stripping it all down, and left it alone for the kids to use, even if it was probably a hazard, in more ways than one. It had been at least a decade since the last time anyone took a hammer or drill to the place.

If we were going to be accepted by the locals, we’d have to be accepted by the youth as well. Keeping this place up and running was one way to go about it.

“Go, but wait.”

“Got it!”

I approached the group, and the boy they were singling out.

The angle I was coming in from put me at the group’s back, they didn’t see me as I advanced.

But, there was a framework of steel beams behind them, close to me. The beginnings of a skeleton of a building. The most that was achieved in that regard was a metal outline of a cube, sitting atop the dirt.

I ran my fingers against the steel, and I craned my head up.

I jumped.

The approach was threefold. First, the park was busy, an hour after most schools had ended for the day. There were others around. Kids shouted in surprise at my sudden, upward movement.

Second, sound could steal, take away attention from one thing to another. People turned whenever they heard something out of the ordinary, and they couldn’t see what had caused it. Humans were a curious species. The group had turned when they heard the shouts, the clanging as my feet stomped on metal.

Third, would be the slightly hard part.

I moved, quick but careful. I knew what this might have looked like to a normal person, and had to hold myself back accordingly. I acted, climbing to get on top of the higher beam that ran parallel to the ground. I was about ten feet up.

Jogging, I crossed the beam, getting even closer to the group and the boy. I was back in the air.

All together, it should have looked like one smooth, impressive stunt, something a trained professional could have pulled off. After weeks of practice  Me? I improvised.

It got the attention of everyone else, though, and I still found an opening to make my landing.

The group that had the boy wouldn’t have been able to see me. I had moved too fast, and with the sun at my back, high above me, I had the cover of a bright, blue, blinding sky. I soared for a time, my feet then finding hard ground. I crouched, then stood.

Everyone was lagging back a few seconds. They trailed behind, heads and eyes struggling to keep up.

When they finally did, though, they would have found me amongst the group, with the boy behind me.

And… there.

The group startled.

“Who the hell are you?” one of them asked. The leader? Maybe, he was tallest one here, but height didn’t necessarily denote power. And it was hard for me to gauge strength from just appearances, now.

“I’m just here to keep the peace,” I said, not offering any further. I’d let them guess.

“Cop?”

“I said keep the peace, not law enforcement. There’s a subtle difference.”

“Then fuck off, if you knew anything about this, about him, then you’d know we’re doing that all on our own. We don’t need you.”

Him. The boy on the ground.

“Something tells me you really intend to do none of those things.”

I looked at another from the group. His face, his hand, his gun, and his face again. I made it clear that I saw it, and that I knew what, exactly, I was here to stop.

I turned my head, slight, so the boy knew I was talking to him, now.

“Nathan.”

“Huh?” He sounded confused. Expected.

“Hey! How do you know him!”

“You can go. Don’t worry about these guys. They won’t be bothering you, anymore.”

It was as if my words only served to confuse him more. He rubbed his chin with his sleeve, and something fell out of a pocket of his jacket. Spray paint.

Being a place for kids to hang out, almost every square inch of cement was tagged or graffitied in some way. I could make out some of the designs and signatures, despite how it all mixed and clashed together. A crown, and a clouds with lightning bolts jutting out.

We’ll need our own tag, too.

No use, Nathan wasn’t moving. He’d probably be better off if I got rid of the group.

I turned back to them.

“Can’t have you kids causing trouble at a time like this, or any time, for that matter. It makes it harder for us, and that makes it harder for everyone. Don’t make this hard for us.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” the tall boy said.

“Do you?”

“You’re with those fucks that took over Krown and his brother!”

The overall feeling of the group changed in that instant. Or rather, it changed back. From anger at the boy, to confusion at me. Now, anger had snapped back in, but it was pointed in a different direction.

Me.

“And what of it?” I asked, admitting my affiliation with that question.

“You vultures, all you did was take advantage of Krown and EZ being taken out of the picture. And now you think you can boss the rest of us around? Fuck you.”

“EZ and Krown took themselves out, they were never going to stick around for much longer. They couldn’t see past whatever grudge they had between them, and they paid for that lack of foresight.”

“I saw,” the tall boy said, his eyes wide. “I was there. That night. It was dark, and it went even darker, everyone started screaming and running as we were all attacked-”

His voice cracked, and he stopped there. The reactions of the others, the way they gave him sidelong glances, suggested this was a story they’d heard before. Or maybe they had been there, themselves.

Weakness, then anger, begging for an outlet. They wanted something, or someone to take the blame on. They couldn’t go against us, not directly, and they wouldn’t even dare try to go against whoever intruded upon that night. The night he was there.

What, then, could they do?

Their surroundings. People, places, things. Tag more street corners to take back what they thought was theirs, wear colors to show that they didn’t accept the new changes. Beat up others who might have, even inadvertently, nudged things along to where it was now. Like using a specific tag that would have pissed off the other side, and, among other growing incidents, forced a confrontation between the two gangs.

Lash out, hoping that they could carve out a semblance of what they knew before. But the world didn’t work like that.

“So what?” I asked.

They stared at me like I was crazy. Especially the tall one.

“So what?” he repeated.

“Krown, or even his brother? Their reign was never going to last long. They weren’t strong enough. If they were, they would have survived this. They wouldn’t have let it get to this point. And now they’re gone. You shouldn’t mourn something that was never meant to be.”

The tall boy growled, and there was movement. A step forward, an arm stretched out, grabbing for something in another boy’s hand-

“You fire that gun, you’re only proving my point,” I said, raising my hands.

The tall boy had the gun now, lifted at an angle. Not at me. If he fired it now, he’d hit the ground, close to my feet.

I kept talking to keep his attention on me, and not that. I did what I could to suppress my own fear, my own weakness.

I took a second to regain my voice. My composure.

“If you’re angry, don’t direct it at someone else. Don’t shift the blame. Be angry at yourself. Your own weakness.”

He dropped his shoulders, deflating, as if I struck a nerve. Touched something raw.

There. Drive into it. Press harder.

I shifted my position, so my face was more to the sun. The glare hit the lenses of my glasses.

Close your eyes.

I closed my eyes.

“Hate it, recognize it, but learn from it. And don’t make the same mistakes as those who failed before you. Pick up the pieces, and grow. Fire that gun, here, now, you’re going to have this park officially shut down, once police and other ordinance remember that this place still exists. And it’s all you have, here, isn’t it? Do that, and now you’ll have people coming after you like you’re coming after Nathan. Don’t fuck it up for everyone else, and don’t make it harder for us.”

I watched, close, as his gun went back to his side. My fear gave way to relief.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Slow, hushed, he said, “Noah.”

“Noah,” I said. “We’re actually trying to build something, here, in this neighborhood. We, unlike Krown and his brother, want to see things improve. And not just here, but everywhere we expand into. It’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to get better. That, I can promise you.”

I thought about Fillmore’s words. I had promised him something, once, too.

“Why?” was all Noah could ask, through gritted teeth.

I answered him.

“Heroes aren’t real, but people can try. And it looks like no one has given an honest effort in a long, long time.”

The truth, insofar as he was concerned.

Noah’s response was without words, yet it was the most telling. He turned, walking away, parting the group that he was with. As he passed, they filled in the gaps again, leaving with him, leaving the park.

As they left, so did everyone’s attention on the scene. Skaters and bikers dispersed, going back to what they were doing before we had showed up.

I waited, and waited, until Noah and his crew were out of sight.

They were, and I fell forward, bending down, hands on my knees. I opened up my eyes.

“Shit, shit…”

I couldn’t help but smile.

I felt an odd sense of accomplishment, having been able to put an end to the situation without resorting to violence, or without anyone getting hurt. Diplomacy. I managed to pull it off.

All on my own.

Looking up, I noticed D peeking at me, from behind one of the steel beams I had scaled to distract them.

I motioned by moving my head, and she walked to me.

“I was waiting for your signal,” D said. “I thought you were going to get them to fight you, and I’d have all their shoelaces tied to each other, or something. Or anything, at least. Now I’m sad.”

She exaggerated a frown to illustrate her point.

You could have done that? I thought, but it was in passing.

“Not everything is about fighting, like how not everything is a game. I managed to talk them down from beating up on Nathan.”

“You did? What’d you say?”

I fixed my stance again, straight. I cracked a knuckle.

“A lot of it was from what Fillmore said the other day. Wickedness or weakness.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t think you would still be ruminating on it.”

“I’m not, not really. Just food for thought… I guess. Anyways, they bought it, and they’re gone now, so… oh.”

I followed D’s eyes. She was looking somewhere else. I turned.

Nathan was still here.

Standing, now, but he was hunched over, can of paint in his hands. Eyes going this way and that way. Still in shock.

“They were going to, they were…” he stammered. He coughed, and he stopped.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “They shouldn’t bother you anymore. And if they do, I’ll make sure they regret it.”

“I told them, I told them it wasn’t my fault. They were… going to make me tag everything, everywhere, and then they were going to kill me after that.”

“We’ll see to it that it doesn’t happen.”

“Yes yes,” D said, smiling, flashing him a sign. ‘V’ for victory.

He drew in a deep breath, and let it out, audible. He sounded hoarse.

“They were going to kill me, they were going to-”

“Hey,” I said. I would have walked up to him, but he was already tense as it was. Couldn’t agitate him more.

He faced me.

“You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that.”

“I fell,” he said, as if I had somehow forgotten.

“Okay,” I said. “You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that. You were an initiate, weren’t you?”

He gave me a look. Curious. “I was. Now, I’m… Now I’m nothing.”

“Still need a job?”

His look maintained.

I put my hands up. “Nothing crazy. I’m just asking if you’re up for it.”

“Well, what?”

“One thing any group or organization needs is proper branding. That includes logos, slogans, mascots, and in our world, tags. We’re in a good spot, right now, but we’re still missing some important, key elements. I’ll try to come up with some designs in the coming days. I’ll run it by you once it’s all official. Then, you’re free to use it, spread it around. Teach your friends.”

“You want me to tag everything, everywhere? That’s the same thing they were trying to make me do.”

I had taken account of how hypocritical my suggestion sounded.

“I’m not threatening you,” I said. “I’m offering you work. Paid work. Services, too. Like protection, just in case. It’s the literal opposite of what Noah was going to do to you.”

The look on his face suggested that he was considering it.

“Alright, I’m in.”

“Good. We’ll sort it out the next time we meet. Say, this time, here, next week?”

Nathan nodded.

“And I’ll give you back your other cans then, too,” D said. “You should really keep an eye on your belongings.”

“Wait, what?”

“Oops, bye Nathan!”

D ran off first, and I had to catch up with her. Nathan could have followed, but he was too shaken up to gather up the energy.

Settling into a more relaxed pace, we left Wellport, the park behind us, and I was still riding the satisfaction of pulling off diplomacy.

“Oh, Lawrence texted in the group chat, by the way. He wants to meet.”

“Now?” I asked. “That was… fast. I hope that means it went well.”

“Don’t know. Didn’t say.”

“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. We went back across the street, heading to the van. Enthusiasm carried my steps. “Day’s still young, let’s keep ourselves busy.”

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